It’s a shame, really, about our ten-minute attention spans. Because a delightful talent comes along and we yammer about them with all of our might, and then forget about them with exactly the same intensity.
Scott Seiss, aka “Angry Retail Guy,” for example, was a social media phenomenon back in winter and spring 2021. But now here it is, the end of summer, and I find that if I bring up Seiss and remind people who he is, I encounter an almost aggressive level of forgetfulness followed by mild scorn for a has-been whose TikTok videos came out clear back in, what — February?
Meanwhile, Seiss goes right on sensibly building his career as a stand-up comedian and actor. At the end of July, he sold out the Bell House in Brooklyn, which added a late show to accommodate the demand for tickets. And he just got cast in a movie generating considerable buzz called Cocaine Bear, directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Ray Liotta, Keri Russell, and Alden Ehrenreich.
It’s quite likely Seiss will be rediscovered all over again soon, and he’s exactly the kind of talent we want to boost along. He’s a class-conscious, pro-labor leftist based on experience, and inclined to mine his experience in his comedy. This is excellent for representing ordinary American life to audiences who are still, even post-pandemic, reluctant to recognize themselves as exploited labor.
If you recall, they started appearing on TikTok in February 2021. When there were about twenty, some inspired tweetmeister put together a video compilation and posted it to Twitter, and from there they spread everywhere online, retweeted by Patton Oswalt and LeBron James and practically everybody online who’s ever had a job. As Seiss says, “I owe that guy, like, a fruit basket or dinner or something, I swear.”
They feature Seiss posed against a generic IKEA background, quoting a typically aggravating customer complaint or clueless question or lame joke.
Then the intense music starts, and the Angry Retail Guy persona emerges, snapping his head forward to glare unblinkingly into the camera as he delivers the withering harangue every “customer-facing” service worker longs to get out of their system.
A crucial factor, comedy-wise, is how Seiss looks — the dark, unblinking eyes in the long, thin, tortured face, which is bisected by a retro-1970s mustache. Of course, the lines themselves, written by Seiss, are quite funny. His creative process is simple — he writes the jokes, and his wife Amanda, who has vaster retail experience than he does, vets them to figure out, as Seiss puts it, “if they’re worthy.”
But it’s the delivery, with its slow-build to a crescendo of barely-restrained, bug-eyed rage that hits the mark of total hilarity every time. Seiss comes by that rage honestly. He was planning to draw on his customer service experience at IKEA for some new comedy bits in his stand-up routine when the pandemic shut all the clubs down, so he looked for another way to get them out there. The videos were a direct result of the pandemic, providing a bracing acknowledgment of worker rage along with comic relief as people became more conscious of how long they’ve toiled in bad working conditions for inadequate wages:
People are just overworked, underpaid, and the jobs are literally asking too much of people. I think that the pandemic really set that off. . . . There was no adjustment period. And for people who had to keep going to work — like my wife had to keep going to work throughout the pandemic — [it was] like, could we all just hold up for a fucking second? Like, let us catch our breath.
That really is the feeling, I think, that people have with work right now. . . .[P]eople are done kind of settling for not having anything.
The sudden success of the Angry Retail Guy videos made Seiss very clear about his dedication to doing more comedy that resonates with his fellow workers. Seeing the comments rolling in, especially from those in various “customer-facing” fields, asking Seiss to do more videos featuring their own ridiculously terrible experiences, he’s come to rely on them as inspiration for demonstrating a new attitude toward work:
You just get treated like shit at work and it feels bad and you don’t get paid very much and that’s just how it is and how it’s always been. And it’s like, yeah, but what if it wasn’t? What if you didn’t have to feel like shit every time you interacted with a customer? I think that’s the fun of the videos — a worker who is going, “Um, no, actually, fuck off, I’m doing my job, and I don’t have to do anything extra or get treated even worse, just because you’re the customer and I work here. I don’t have to be ashamed.”
I hate the idea of people being ashamed about what their job is. Why the hell is that even a part of it, you know?
Meet Scott Seiss, Worker
The effect generated by Angry Retail Guy is quite different from that of Scott Seiss, who is very nice and cheerful and has a cackling laugh. Seiss is in his twenties and currently lives in New York City, with a day job working as a social media manager at PBS, which he gently mocks:
A lot of the PBS [vibe], public television, is kind of gate-keepy, like “This is actually smart TV, and you have to go to college to understand what we’re doing here.”
Seiss hails from Dundalk, Maryland, outside of Baltimore. He expresses a great deal of underdog solidarity, coming from one of the so-called Rust Belt towns of the Northeast:
It’s a working-class town and people shit on Baltimore, saying, “Well, it’s got all this crime, and it’s poor.” But that’s not my experience with Baltimore. Like doing stand-up in Baltimore, everyone in this city is funny as hell. . . . And I came to New York and was doing stand-up, and — not to disparage the New York stand-up scene — but I think Baltimore comics are funnier.
His background that informed his blue-collar sensibility involved a single mom who raised him and his sister, and a step-dad who’s a delivery driver for FedEx:
Very working-class people, and incredibly smart, funny, insightful people also. I always felt like, growing up . . . that working-class people — they know way more about what the fuck is going on than anyone in any upper echelon above them.
Like most working-class people, Seiss has had a lot of demanding jobs. Seiss says that the worst job he ever had was as a delivery driver for Domino’s Pizza. He lasted two weeks. There was the typically gratuitous level of physical discomfort to contend with:
You had to wear black pants, and it’d be like 100 degrees and you’re delivering a pizza in this long heavy clothing. . . . And my car smelled like marinara sauce for a whole summer.
Plus there were the shady shenanigans going on involving the boss typing false information into the computer system suggesting an army of efficient young pizza delivery people being dispatched into the world carrying piping-hot pizzas:
And meanwhile it would just be me leaving with ten pizzas that he said I already delivered in the computer system.
But it was a completely circular system of lies that also took care of the inevitable customer outrage when they finally got their cold pizzas and gave no tips:
The pizzas would be late as all hell, and then any customer complaints that would come in would just end at the store, would never go up the chain [to Domino’s Corporate HQ]. So as far as Domino’s knew, this was the most efficient franchise in the state.
Seiss is quite unlike his Angry Retail Guy persona in his understanding attitude toward most customers, judging that they’re taking out their frustrations with the company on the only person they have access to, which just happens to be the cashier or the call-center employee who answers the phone.
And as the cashier, you want to say, “You understand that I don’t make the policy, I’m the person who gets paid to be yelled at about the policy. That’s my position in the hierarchy.” Though that’s also my question, like, “Do they know that I don’t [make the policy], or do they think that we all, like, vote on it in a boardroom or something like that?”
Clearly Seiss could do an entire set of video screeds or a complete ranting stand-up comedy routine just to express his scorn for managers, which is an attitude shared by enormous numbers of workers all over the world. For Seiss, the best day of work is always the day the manager isn’t there:
Not because it’s like, “Oh, now we don’t have to do work!” but it’s like, “Oh, we can get work done. Without someone coming up and being like “Is the work done? When will the work be done?” Asking these questions because you don’t do it, we do it. Let us do it.
In Seiss’s view, the manager is essentially a useless figure there to time workers’ breaks and generally add a layer of harassment. Managers should be replaced by fellow workers who actually know how to do the job at hand and could split among themselves their overlords’ spurious authority and, more importantly, their exorbitant pay:
The IKEA call center was notorious for, like, if someone was asking for a manager on the phone, you’d raise your hand and say, “Oh I need a manager over here,” it was literally known that the manager would, like, run away. Like escape, go to the other building, go to the bathroom or whatever, because they didn’t want to deal with it, or they didn’t know how to.
So then [call center] people would be passing the phone to each other, pretending to be the manager.
Like many working-class leftists, Seiss gets a little anxious about identifying a precise political stance for himself, in case he might be wrong about the terminology, or might not be a hundred-percent sure of the theory behind it:
I almost want to say, “I’m just a dumb comedian, I just do comedy.” I don’t like to say I’m a socialist and have someone say, “No, you’re a democratic socialist,” and then I’ll cower and say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know!” All I know is I want workers to be paid more and work less, that’s my thing. I say $30 minimum wage. Let’s start there. . . . People should be able to work, and have a life outside of work that is not uncomfortable.
But he acknowledges that a general strike is one of his great unfulfilled yearnings.
Every worker has to have that fantasy. When you’re at a job, and you’re just like, “What if we all just walked the fuck out right now? They would not be able to do anything.”
Seiss once thought up an absurdist workers’ revolt at the job that got him through college. Before his job at IKEA, he was with a murder mystery theater company that would perform at birthday parties and conferences and other events.
It was totally an improvised show, and the company would give us, like, ten silly hats [to work with]. . . . So essentially the actors would get 5 percent of what the show was making, the company would make [almost all the money]. And the actors were the whole show.
I used to joke about how we should seize the hats. Because if we owned the ten hats, we would have everything we needed to do this job.